History Vs. Podcast Episode 2: Theodore Roosevelt Vs. Time
Mental Floss has a new podcast with iHeartRadio called History Vs., about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. Our first season is all about President Theodore Roosevelt. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts here, and for more TR content, visit the History Vs. site.
It’s a chilly day in February 1877, and Theodore Roosevelt, a freshman at Harvard, is busy. Very, very busy. He wakes up at 7:30 and breakfasts on “hot biscuits, toast, chops or beef steak, and buckwheat cakes.”
After breakfast, he reviews notes from his classes—he’s taking classical literature; composition and translation in Greek, Latin, and German; trigonometry and geometry; physics; and chemistry.
At 10 a.m. he eagerly digs into his mail, reviewing the day’s letters, perhaps dashing off a few rapid-fire replies.
From 11 a.m. to noon he attends Latin recitation, after which he heads to the gym to train for an upcoming boxing match in the lightweight division at Harvard.
Next, lunch, where there is a “free fight” that sends a fellow student under the table, prompting threats of expulsion from a Mrs. Morgan.
After lunch, there is more studying and more recitation until late into the afternoon.
In the evening he dines with a Mr. and Mrs. Tudor, writing later that he had “a very pleasant home-like time.”
From Mental Floss and iHeartRadio, this is History Vs., a podcast about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. I’m your host, Erin McCarthy, and this week’s episode is TR versus Time.
Roosevelt once declared, “I have already lived and enjoyed as much of life as any nine other men I know,” and it’s true—it’s hard to think of another person who accomplished as much as TR did, even though he was working with 24 hours in the day, just like the rest of us.
Cal Newport: This is the crazy thing. The busiest job you can imagine is being the president of the United States, and even in that job, he felt like he had too much downtime.
That’s Cal Newport, author of the books Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World and Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. He first read about TR’s feats of productivity in historian Edmund Morris’s book, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.
Roosevelt was home-schooled for most of his life, because he was too weak to go to regular school, but he thrived under the strict schedule set by the Dresden family he lived with in Germany for five months in 1873.
It’s perhaps this time in Germany that formed TR’s lifelong obsession with a schedule. Each day, he would get up at 6:30, eat breakfast until 7:30, then study until 12:30. Then he’d have lunch, study until 3, and enjoy free time until tea at 7. After that, it was studying until 10, then bed. He wrote to his father, Thee, “It is harder than I have ever studied before in my life, but I like it for I really feel that I am making considerable progress.”
When he had to take some time off after an asthma attack, he insisted that his tutors work him extra hard to make up what he had missed. When he was 15, the Roosevelts returned to the States, and TR took up with another tutor, this time with an ambitious goal: Get into Harvard in the fall of 1876, which meant passing the entrance exams in the summer of ‘75.
Roosevelt had a year and a half to cram, and he studied six to eight hours every day. His tutor, Arthur Cutler, later wrote, “The young man never seemed to know what idleness was.”
According to author David McCullough, in that time Roosevelt accomplished what normally took three years, and he passed his preliminary Harvard entrance exams in July 1875.
TR kept just as busy while he was at Harvard, where he lived in a boarding house off campus because the dorms were considered not ideal for his asthma.
He joined a number of clubs: He wrote in his diary that he was “Librarian of the Porcellian, Secretary of the Pudding, Treasurer of the O.K., Vice President of the Natural History Soc., President of the A.D.Q. [and] Editor of the Advocate." He was also a member of the Glee Club, although he didn’t sing. He taught Sunday School. He took dance class but avoided going to the theater, because “I don’t care for it, and it might hurt my eyes.”
He read incessantly, at a rate of two to three pages a minute. He boxed and wrestled and hiked. He courted the ladies and had an active social life. He studied as much as 36 hours a week. And in between that, he found time to write two works on ornithology and begin a book that would later be placed on every Navy ship, The Naval War of 1812. In the words of one classmate, TR was “forever at it.”
Cal: This is someone who was taking issues of productivity to new levels.
According to Morris, TR got through such huge amounts of work due to “iron self-discipline” that had become a habit. He spent just a quarter of the day at his desk, but he concentrated so hard, and read so rapidly, that he could take more time off than most other students. But even his time off was not that restful. It was packed with activity.
Newport was so inspired by Morris’s description of TR’s productivity that he featured Roosevelt in Deep Work.
Cal: There's really two factors to his productivity. One is this idea which I've written about more recently, including in Digital Minimalism, which is his belief that action is better than inaction. And that’s an interesting idea. A lot of people, especially today in a world of easy distraction, think what they really need is just time when they have nothing to do, they can just sit there and watch Netflix while swiping on their phone and just be bathed in passive distraction. They need that to recharge. They're exhausted. But TR is from this other school of thought, which says you're almost always better off, from a perspective of recharging your satisfaction, doing things, quality things, hard things all the time. You could be doing hard things or sleep, and that's it.
Throughout late 19th-century, early 20th-century thinkers, this is a common idea, that action all the time that's quality leaves you better off than trying to alternate between sort of pure passive rest and action. So I like that. But the other element is that he really believed in this formula that I've been writing about for years, which is what you produce is a function of the time you spend times your intensity of focus. And so TR's hack was "Let me take the intensity of focus piece of that equation and really pump it up as high as possible. If I can do that, then I can really minimize the time spent piece and get a lot of things accomplished."
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Morris wrote that Roosevelt “plotted every day with the methodism of a Wesleyan minister,” and there’s no better example of that than a schedule of one of his days from the campaign trail in 1900. While incumbent presidential candidate William McKinley largely stayed away from the campaign trail, vice presidential candidate Roosevelt was crisscrossing the country.
The schedule itself is a testament to his boundless energy, but so are the statistics of that campaign season: According to Morris, Roosevelt, by November, had made “673 speeches in 567 towns in 24 states; he had traveled 21,209 miles and spoken an average of 20,000 words a day to 3 million people.”
One day on the trail, his schedule went like this:
- 7:00 a.m. Breakfast
- 7:30 a.m. A speech
- 8:00 a.m. Reading a historical work
- 9:00 a.m. A speech
- 10:00 a.m. Dictating letters
- 11:00 a.m. Discussing Montana mines
- 11:30 a.m. A speech
- 12:00 p.m. Reading an ornithological work
- 12:30 p.m. A speech
- 1:00 p.m. Lunch
- 1:30 p.m. A speech
- 2:30 p.m. Reading [Scottish novelist] Sir Walter Scott
- 3:00 p.m. Answering telegrams
- 3:45 p.m. A speech
- 4:00 p.m. Meeting the press
- 4:30 p.m. Reading
- 5:00 p.m. A speech
- 6:00 p.m. Reading
- 7:00 p.m. Supper
- 8-10 p.m. Speaking
- 11:00 p.m. Reading alone in his [train] car
- 12:00 a.m. To bed
It’s enough to make you want to take a nap.
Erin: He had a long history of basically having these really regimented days. Is that something that you think contributed to his ability to get a lot done?
Cal: I think it absolutely did. A lot of people, especially today, when they're thinking about their personal productivity, they think in terms of tasks. You know, what do I want to get done today? Where's my to-do list? Maybe I'm going to do the most-important-task-of-the-day system, where I choose one thing I really want to get done.
But something I consistently discover is that high achievers are often echoing the Roosevelt approach, which is "I want to actually allocate my attention," which means when you look at a particular day, you're not making a task list; you're blocking off your hours. What am I doing during this half hour? What am I doing during these three hours? You have so much attention to give in a day; you're trying to find the optimal allocation.
They also think about this on higher scales. What am I doing this week? Oh, Wednesday is the day that I'm going to have a lot of downtime in the morning, so that's when I'm going to really get after this project.
And so that idea of thinking about "I have, whatever it is—12 hours of attention to allocate in a day, some of those hours are going to be higher intensity than others, depending on where they fall; how do I get the biggest return on that attention?" That's an incredibly powerful productivity hack. It's one that I've been preaching, and I was influenced in that, in particular, by that approach of TR.
We know he was even doing that with his leisure, which I find interesting. When he's at Oyster Bay, when he's at his house on the Long Island Sound, he had pretty structured approaches to: I'm going to go rowing. I'm going to row across the sound, then we're going to play these games with the cousins, then we're going to read or whatever. Even at his leisure, he was allocating his attention as well.
Erin: So how does TR compare to other highly productive or successful people in history?
Cal: So he has that, as we talked about before, that manic energy, that need to always be doing things, that distrust of passive relaxation. That's pretty common. I mean, you see that a lot, let's say, in the business world in high achievers. That's certainly a definitive trait of, let's say, like Elon Musk or Bill Gates, for example. These are people who had this restless drive. "I’ve got do something. I’ve got to do something else. I don't trust passive time. I don't trust recharging," I mean, often to the detriment of their health.
That type of thing is common. Once you get to a certain level of productivity, like you're running ... two companies at the same time, or you're running the country at the same time that you're writing books. That's how they get there. You can't get there without being highly intentional about your time.
Roosevelt’s level of activity didn’t let up when he was in the White House. This might be best exemplified by a project created by archivist Chloe Elder, who, in the summer of 2017, was between masters degrees and doing a remote internship at the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University in North Dakota.
Every day, she’d clock in and go through material piece by piece adding metadata. A lot of the documents Elder was cataloging were letters written during Roosevelt’s presidency.
Chloe: There's something about being plopped down right in the middle of someone's correspondence. It's immediate. It's often very intimate.
As she was working, Elder began to notice a pattern.
Chloe: I kept seeing this one sort of standard reply from TR's secretary. And it would be something along the lines of, "Thank you very much for your letter, or your invitation, but President Roosevelt is far too busy to respond personally, or far too busy to attend the event, or make a speech, or read your story that you've submitted to him." And I just wanted to see, well how busy was he?
So she decided to create a calendar—something that would allow her to visualize just what a week in the life of President Roosevelt looked like. She began searching through the digitized archives at the Center, as well as his desk diaries, which he kept every day. Eventually, she zeroed in on a week where Roosevelt was sitting for a portrait by John Singer Sargent.
Chloe: TR would only pose for half an hour a day, after lunch, and it was apparently very hard to get him to sit still and not be rushing off somewhere else.
Erin: Classic TR.
After gathering all of the data and crunching the numbers, a picture began to emerge, and that picture was action-packed. According to the calendar Elder created, sometimes TR would hold up to eight meetings in an hour, meaning that if they were all equal in length, they would have been a mere 7.5 minutes each.
But even for TR, life doesn’t neatly fit into such tidy chunks.
Chloe: Some of the meetings do look like they're really quick, it says to pay respects. So that sounds like a brief sort of introduction. But then there are other meetings, and you could maybe guess what was going on if you also look at what was happening politically at the time, or looking at his letters. But a lot of it is still a bit of a mystery.
And on top of his busy schedule, he was sending letter after letter after letter.
Chloe: How many letters did he write that week? I'd have to count up, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25 ... I mean, a lot of letters that week. I saw he regularly wrote more letters than he received on any given day, really. In his lifetime he wrote over 150,000 letters.
Erin: I'm not president of the United States and I struggle to return an email.
This is probably a good place for a break. We’ll be right back.
In addition to his many meetings and his epic commitment to correspondence, TR was also reading around a book a day and making time to be active.
Roosevelt played tennis, though he was never photographed in his tennis whites. He boxed, and when he couldn’t do that anymore, he took up jiu-jitsu. He swam—nude—in the Potomac. And he regularly dragged diplomats to Rock Creek Park to take a brisk walk or maybe scale a cliff.
As one such diplomat later recalled of a jaunt in the park, “He … made me struggle through bushes and over rocks for two hours and a half, at an impossible speed, till I was so done that I could hardly stand. His great delight is rock climbing, which is my weak point. I disgraced myself completely, and my arms and shoulders are still stiff with dragging myself up by roots and ledges. At one place I fairly stuck, and could not get over the top till he caught me by the collar and hauled at me.… He did almost all the talking, to my great relief, for I had no breath to spare.”
After he left the White House, TR’s ability to get a lot done in very little time loomed large. His successor, William Howard Taft, bemoaned, “I would give anything in the world if I had the ability to clear away work as Roosevelt did.” Me too, Will. Me too.
Erin: I often say that TR just makes me feel really tired, because it's like, "How?”
Cal: So the key factor seems to be this internal engine that gives him such a burst of energy that he has to be doing things throughout the day, and I've never seen someone focus it more intensely than he did. I'm also in awe. I wish I had maybe, what, 30 percent of his energy. I'd probably be 200 percent more productive.
Erin: He didn't have many of the distractions that we have today. Do we think that he would be as productive if he had a smartphone, for example, or the internet?
Cal: I don't know. On the one hand, he clearly had this huge energy and a huge drive to intensely do things and to produce things, so he might've been a figure that was just completely dismissive of "I don't need passive entertainment. I don't need to sit. This is not valuable enough. I don't want to sit here tweeting. I want to write a book," right. So he might've been completely dismissive of it.
On the other hand, he was highly curious and really attracted to new information. When you're talking about the early 20th century, what could you do? You could have smart people to the White House. You could read books. They were inherently very focused activities. We might see a TR that was so entranced by all these different rabbit holes he could go down, that instead of writing the book on naval history, he would be watching YouTube videos about knot-tying or something like that.
And if that latter thing is true, then that begs the question, how many potential TRs, at least in terms of productive output, leadership, and impact, are we losing? Because that huge energy and curiosity, "I need to do things, I need to act, I need to produce things," I mean, is that being sacked by an attention economy engine that is more roaming and finely tuned than we've ever had before in history. That's the pessimistic view—[that] we've been losing potential TRs because of it.
But I don't know. I tend to think he wants to produce. He wants to think big thoughts. He wants to produce interesting things. He wants to make big changes. He probably would not be a big user of Twitter. That would be my guess.
If you, like me, are wondering where Roosevelt found the energy to get so much done, one clue might be in his coffee intake. He was said to drink up to a gallon of coffee a day, and according to his son Ted, his mug was less like a regular coffee mug and “more in the nature of a bathtub.” He put up to seven lumps of sugar in each cup, too.
But according to Elder, that might not be Roosevelt’s ultimate hack.
Erin: So what do you think the rest of us can learn about how to be productive from TR's approach to his schedule?
Chloe: Well I wouldn't recommend the gallon of coffee a day. But I think he found what worked for him as far as being very productive all the time. And he seemed to thrive in that sort of environment. TR wasn't used to sitting still for more than half hour, and his MO was just to keep going and keep moving. And he was steadfast in that way of doing things, and I think that really worked for him. Just to find out what works best and run with it.
And when Newport thinks about how we can all be a little more like TR, he thinks of a quote from an interview Steve Martin did with Charlie Rose.
Cal: Charlie Rose had asked him, "What's your advice to aspiring entertainers?" And Steve Martin said, "Well, the advice I give them, which is never what they want to hear, but the advice I give them is be so good you can't be ignored. If you do that, good things will come." But TR, I think, really embodied that as well. He didn't just want to do things; he wanted to do things really well. He always wanted to be so good you couldn't ignore him. He was always driven to do things at a really high level of quality, which sounds obvious, but I think it's really different than a lot of our instincts today, especially in a world of sort of attention-economy media, as well as digital communication, where we also have this hustle culture, which is just be busy, right, do lots of things. Email lots of people. Have lots of coffees. Do a lot of things on social media. Just be kind of in the mix and crushing it and hustling and all this, and that'll somehow alchemize into some sort of success.
And I think TR represented a counterpoint to that, which is busyness by itself means nothing, hustling by itself means nothing. Things that you produce, things that you have shipped that are so good that it's hard for people to ignore, that's the foundation for interesting impact. I love the way that he embodied that. Busyness for busyness' sake was not a value. Intensity toward things that really mattered or might have a real impact was something he cared about. I think there's probably a lot to learn from that today.
History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy.
This episode was written by me, with fact checking by Austin Thompson.
The executive producers are Erin McCarthy, Julie Douglas, and Tyler Klang.
The supervising producer is Dylan Fagan.
This show is edited by Dylan Fagan and Lowell Brillante.
Special thanks to Cal Newport and Chloe Elder.
To learn more about this episode, check out mentalfloss.com/historyvs.
History Vs. is a production of iHeartRadio and Mental Floss.